Cultural Literacy

Back in the late 80s, early 90s I read Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch. While I felt his list was a little on the conservative side politically and basically ignored or glossed over important figures and events in our history, I have come to feel he did have a point.

Though I haven’t read the book in at least 15 years, I clearly remember that he wrote that at one time, he could use the phrase “There is a tide” and business associates would know exactly how things stood without explanation. (The quote is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.)

He bemoaned the fact that he could not do that in the 1980s because of the way students were being educated and the lack of emphasis by families that children be exposed to culturally important things. But times change and old cultural touchstones give way to new.

Just recently I found myself similarly mourning the loss of channels of common culture. Or more precisely, the literal increase in the number of channels. When I was a boy, television was comprised of seven stations the three networks, PBS, two independent stations that 20 odd years later become Fox, WB affiliates and the original WWOR. Because there were so few stations, chances were you were watching the same shows as your neighbors and had something in common to talk about.

When I was in 5th or 6th grade, West Side Story was on Sunday afternoon. The next day at recess, my friends and I had a rumble and I got my first black eye. (Matt Mays ducked when James Barry and I were trying to grab him and I hit my face on James’ head). The inspiration of violence aside, there was no need for explanations about how to conduct ourselves because we all saw the musical the night before. (Well, actually, the dancing was beyond us so we skipped that part and went straight to rumble.)

I have noted the problems advertisers face these days reaching audiences (here and here) because there are so many television channels as opposed to the handful back in the old days.

While cable television and the internet allow more people to become familiar with new ideas than would have been possible when a handful of stations dictated what we knew, the weakness of this system is that now only a comparative handful of people can become familiar with a particular new idea. A smaller segment of the population witnessed the fall of Bo Bice on American Idolthan watched Roots.

Even worse, with more channels competing for eyeballs, the programming is even more mainstream and pitched to appeal to the widest audience possible so even fewer new ideas are being introduced to the country. Though granted, A&E, the History Channel, Discovery Channel, TLC, etc do give me an opportunity to learn about more than that single PBS station I watched — but even they have repositioned themselves to appeal to the most people since they arrived on the cable line up. Their stuff is interesting, but doesn’t challenge general attitudes and thinking.

Honestly, I am a little confounded by the recent brouhaha over Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chair, Kenneth Tomlinson, attempting to scuttle PBS. Or rather, I am confused by the actual attempt. With so many fewer people watching PBS these days than in Nixon’s days when he attempted to interfere with the network of stations, I have to imagine PBS is pretty much preaching to the converted and bringing few new people over to whatever way of thinking he feels is unbalanced.

With all the attention the attempted makeover of PBS is getting, I think more people may start thinking that maybe there is something on the stations that they should be watching. It is that old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. It might have been better to leave well enough alone and let the station be continually overshadowed by competitors rather than give people a reason to yank it into the light, dust it off and examine a lost treasure more closely.

I am not suggesting that cultural values and knowledge be standardized and everyone learn them because you quickly fall into the argument about who decides what is important. I know that the NEA’s Shakespeare in American Communities is controversial for this reason. The same is true with the programs where everyone in a city reads the same book over the summer. If you are picking one artist or one book, you are excluding so many others whose equal value can be argued.

At the same time, these program fill a desire in our lives to touch upon the time that humans lived in close knit communities where we found joy in our shared values, stories and traditions. Yes, times change and we have to face that inevitability.

But there is also something noble about thinking back to things like the family traditions of our childhood and wanting to share and create similar memories for others. Comfort and security can be found in these type of practices. The mistake comes when we grasp on these things as the only true ways to find comfort and security and insist on the same to others.

I don’t know where and how this common base can be built or found. I don’t believe the Shakespeare initiative and all Chicagoans reading A Raisin in the Sun was intended as a declaration of the true things citizens should know about the exclusion of all others. I am not as sure about Hirsch’s book, though there are certainly things in there worth knowing. With so many options for entertainment and information, I don’t know that any of these programs could have a wide enough an influence to create a common base.

It would sure be nice if we had some stronger common cultural ties beyond reality TV these days though.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Cultural Literacy”

  1. Perhaps we could begin, at least on a micro level, by encouraging commmunity building skills which we seem o have lost but don’t know it. Instead of watching a DVD a home with your spouse, have a monthly movie club. Instead of buying a house in the exburbs for 500 extra sq. feet, move closer in. Patronize neighborhood businesses instead of saying “Well I can get it cheaper at Home Depot.” Remember, the ties of network TV sprang out of the 1950s desinigration of other forms of communal life. If we want them back, perhaps the place to start is not in the culture but in our daily behavior.

  2. Build Your Community

    My entry yesterday has received a comment from a somewhat appropriate source. Kevin Smokler has written a book, Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, which essentially asks, is it worth writing a book if no one is reading them. He…


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